The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of High Mileage Training

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Photo Credit: 長跑 Long Run (Marathon) by Flickr user See-ming Lee, used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo Credit: 長跑 Long Run (Marathon) by Flickr user See-ming Lee, used under a Creative Commons license.

One of the bigger areas of debate among runners and coaches is the tradeoff between quantity of miles (or kilometers, of course) and quality of miles.  With the growth of the “run less, run better” and Crossfit approaches to training, there is a temptation to believe that you as a runner can perform your best by landing on the quality side of this argument in your training and cutting down your mileage to the “minimum necessary.” There are plenty of success stories claiming to prove that these approaches work.

It is, however, important to distinguish between what “can work” and what “works best”.  Yes, you can improve your race results with a low quantity / high quality approach, particularly if you are a newer runner (and don’t run with so much intensity that you get injured), or a runner who has been away for awhile but has a good aerobic and athletic base.  But these gains are going to be limited in scope and over time, as your returns on investment will begin to fade.

This article takes the other position, that for most race distances and most running goals, pursuing higher volume / higher mileage training is the way to drive longer-term success.  Look no further than the training approaches of the elites.  If high quality / lower quantity training were the “best” approach, you wouldn’t see competitive milers running upwards of 60 miles per week and most elite marathoners running well over 100 per week.  I’ll walk through the “5 W’s” and the “How” on high mileage training, as well as let you know what to expect when you get there, and how to know you’ve gone too far.

Why High-Mileage Training?

The critical physiological ingredient for success at any race distance 800 meters and above is your aerobic capacity, or your ability to take in, transport, and utilize oxygen.  There is no better way to improve this (which involves growing and increasing the number of mitochondria, increasing enzyme activity in the mitochondria, and improving the capillarization of muscle fibers) than through running a lot, and doing a lot of that volume at an easy pace also helps in the process.  Furthermore, other important physiological attributes for successful running, such as your lactate threshold and running economy, also increase with your volume (though there are also specialized workouts and exercises to help supplement these gains).

Additionally, the principle of specificity of training emphasizes that you gain the most by performing the activity you are trying to improve.  So while cycling, swimming, using the elliptical, rowing, and many other workouts can help increase your aerobic capacity, the other gains in specific strength (hip and glutes, calves, etc.) and form improvements come mostly through running.

Finally, high mileage training puts you in a lot of situations you will encounter in races.  You may well be training in a glycogen depleted and fatigued state, similar to what you’ll experience at the end of a marathon (or, in the case of fatigue, nearly any other race at 5K and above).  You will face mental hurdles on a regular basis, as well as a greater probability of experiencing environmental challenges (heat, humidity, wind, rain) or other barriers that arise (gastrointestinal issues, blackened toenails, etc.).  All of this combines to give you valuable race-like experience that you normally can’t get without running a lot of races, which is not an ideal training approach.

What Is High Mileage Training?

It’s important to think in relative terms about training volume, not absolutes.  For some runners, high mileage will mean pushing 100 miles per week.  For others, it may be half of that amount.  And this can change for an individual over time.  For example, in 2010, I thought 255 miles / month (around 60/week) was high.  Three years later, it took closer to 400 miles in a month to qualify (OK, it was only 393 miles).

Therefore the best way to think of this is a sustained period (say, 4-6 weeks, with a small step back week in the middle) at a volume around 10% or more above your previous peak (and the step back itself should be near your previous peak to 10% lower).  It is really the cumulative effect of hitting a higher volume and staying there for a bit that delivers the benefits.  Just surging once to a golden week with your all-time mileage high doesn’t really cut it.

Who Can Benefit from High Mileage Training?

Nearly any runner will benefit from this high-mileage training approach, but there are a few caveats.  First, newer runners who have only been training for a few years and who do not have a “general athletic” background may need to focus on building sufficient strength to minimize injury risk, so should mitigate their volume a bit.  Of course, such a runner may see improvement (and may be increasing their volume in an incremental manner) in any case, so the discussion isn’t really that relevant in that case – there is still plenty of “low hanging fruit” to pick.

Second, a runner with a long history of training, and specifically having already done so at higher volumes, has less to gain and, depending on their age, more to risk from such an approach.  The aerobic benefits accumulate season after season to the point where there is little more to add, and such a runner can (and should) afford the opportunity to focus on quality over quantity. This is an approach you’ll find in many competitive master runners, who shift to cross training for their “easy” days and leave the running for just a few days a week of intense, key efforts.

Thus, this type of training is best suited for those runners who have realized their early gains and may be starting to reach a plateau.  High mileage training is one way to reinvigorate your training and reach new levels of performance.

When Should You Pursue High Mileage Training?

One sacrifice you should expect to have to make when you enter a higher volume period is in the quality of this mileage.  Thus, it is best to do this at a time when you aren’t worried about race-specific preparations and pacing, and really can afford the “quantity versus quality” tradeoff.  On the flip side, you need to have a good base established, preferably to a point where you are near or just below your previous highest volumes.  And you don’t want to do it so far ahead of your goal race that the benefits start to fade by race day.

Thus, the ideal time to do your high-mileage training is in the “mesocycle” (4 to 6 week training period) that comes before your race-specific preparations.  This would have it finishing around 7 to 9 weeks ahead of your race (allowing 4 to 6 weeks of race-specific pacing work) and therefore starting around 11 to 15 weeks before the race.  You can sustain a good volume level into your race specific training and let the quality catch up to you, but you wouldn’t want to be pursuing new peaks at this point.

And this is not something you’ll want to pursue every season, as you will soon find yourself reaching volumes that you may not be able to sustain (or find that every season becomes a bit of a drag as you continuously push yourselves).  Once every year or two is more in order; the frequency should be higher if you are a “relatively” newer runner and don’t have a decade of an aerobic base behind you, but should diminish once you do have that level of experience.

Where Can You Execute High Mileage Training?

OK, this may seem like a force fit for one of the five “W’s”, but one of the requirements to fitting high mileage training in is to get creative about where and when you run.  You may need to rely on doubles or on multi-tasking to find the time.  Thus, the answer to this is “wherever you can” – from work, on your way to or from work (maybe even commuting in this manner), to complete errands, while your kids are at sports practice, etc.  And variety may play an important role in keeping you healthy – altering the terrain (roads, grass, trails) and topography (i.e., hills) in your route helps you employ muscles in a different manner as you run and reduces the risk of overuse.

How Do you Execute High Mileage Training?

Again, the specific nature of your training schedule will depend on what constitutes “high mileage”, but in general the structure may include:

  • Adding a weekly “medium long” run (in the 90 to 120 minute range) to your long run.  This is generally “easy” mileage (or at most “moderate”).  If you are talking of volume approaching 90-100 miles per week, you may have a second such run every week.  Note that this assumes your long run is already 120 minutes or longer – if not, then that should be another step you take.
  • Adding doubles whenever you can.  While the most obvious place to do this is on your recovery (or, anticipation) days, I personally find that a second easy / short run (40-60 minutes) on the day of a harder workout helps in the recovery process and allows you to maintain some truly “easy” days in your schedule.
  • Maintain a rest day at least once every two weeks.  While there are some runners who thrive on training every day, for most of us the rest day is an essential part of training, allowing us to reap the gains of a series of harder workouts.  Thus, it is often better to add an extra double if necessary to preserve the rest day.

There are several other considerations to keep in mind that can help you stay healthy and injury free when you train with high mileage as well:

  • Run any harder workouts intelligently – do not exceed your target paces (adjusted for weather, fatigue, etc.), and make sure they are not designed as all-out efforts.  This is the time to opt for quantity over quality for a short period, so it is far better to undertrain from an intensity standpoint than to risk overtraining in general.
  • Keep the non-workout days really easy.  Now is not the time to care how fast you run on easy days.  It is a good time, in fact, to leave the watch behind or set it to show the time of day.  The latter is helpful for those medium-long runs of 90-120 minutes so you at least know when to stop.
  • Fit in whatever strength training you can, but recognize that it may be sacrificed a bit due to time constraints.  Hopefully, you’ve invested ahead with a good enough preseason plan to hold you over during this period.  Still, you should seek to implement some basic strength work into your warm-up and cool-down routines via lunges, leg swings, donkey kicks, and the like.

What Should You Expect?

If this is a new endeavor for you, you may be a bit uncertain as to how it will go and have a tendency to overreact to any small signal.  Thus, it’s helpful to keep the following in mind as natural consequences of picking up your training a bit.

First, you will experience conflicting emotions and sensations.  Sometimes the volume will leave you feeling energized by your sense of accomplishment.  At others, you’ll feel drained due to the amount of work you are putting in.  You will shift from enthusiasm about the approach to trepidation (often in synch with the energy/depletion cycle).  And you’ll feel proud of what you are doing, while at the same time feeling a little bit of guilt about the other sacrifices you may be making.  It’s helpful to think of this as a short-term investment with a long term gain to get through these lulls.

You will be constantly hungry – but you may not (and should not necessarily seek to) lose weight.  Keeping sufficiently fueled to maintain your energy is particularly important now, and you are unlikely to gain weight.  Make smart choices but now is not the time to count calories.  This is another way you should listen to your body during this period.  At times, you may need to pay particular attention to making the time to eat, since time will be scarce due to your training.

Over time, you’ll find the “quality” will catch up with the “quantity”.  If you get to a higher volume level and sustain it, eventually your body will adapt and you will be better able to hit your harder workouts.  Again, this is not a time to overreach and attempt harder workouts than you usually perform.  But you’ll be able to sustain longer moderate-effort tempo runs and even long runs will start to seem, well, shorter.

While you shouldn’t count on racing a lot during this training period, it is possible to adjust your training a bit to maintain the volume while fitting in a quality “B” race, though you should definitely plan a step back week afterwards.  Racing on semi-fatigued legs is good practice for the half marathon and, especially, the marathon, so this in some ways provides a unique training opportunity.

Finally, you’ll be facing constant “niggles”, and it can be difficult to determine what is on it’s way to becoming an injury (more on that in a second) versus what is just normal soreness from stretching your capabilities.  Massage, stretching (though not necessarily in the traditional manner), and some basic mobility work may help you keep things together, but you do need to monitor these niggles closely to make sure they don’t impact your running form and don’t get progressively worse as you train.

When Do You Cut Back?

As mentioned previously, you’ll likely want to set a fixed time period over which you perform this type of training, perhaps 4 to 6 weeks, or even up to 8 weeks.  But there may be some signals that you need to step back a bit from the brink, at least temporarily.

First, any “niggle” that impacts your running form can lead to other injuries due to compensation, so be conscious of your form and cut back if you notice it changing.  Further, the “niggle” itself can progress to an injury.  If it feels worse as you run, or progressively worsens over time between workouts, then it is something to be taken more seriously and which requires a reduction in training or outright rest.

Second, if you start to experience signs of overtraining such as a higher resting heart rate (especially in the morning), moodiness, fatigues, shifting sleep patterns, or a higher propensity for illness, it is also time to cut back. You can recover from overtraining if you catch it early and act quickly, so be sensitive to these signs, especially the elevated resting heart rate as that is often a leading indicator of overtraining.

Finally, keep in mind that you do have a life outside of your training.  If you start to miss other commitments or become stressed due to trying to balance too many things, it’s time to reconsider your training.  You will not perform well, and will not reap the benefits, if you train under the load of mental stress, and no amount of long term negative consequences is worth the gain your training will provide.  You have plenty of time in your running career to make this investment, so if it turns out not to be the right time right now, then save it for another season.

High volume training can be the biggest boon to your running performance, but it can also be the most challenging to manage.  Hopefully, these tips will help you identify when to fit it in and how to maintain the training in a manner that provides purely positive results.

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  • christa davidson

    Hi Greg
    I feel like this was written for me!Nice job breaking down what is happening and why we are doing it.
    So…off I got to log those km’s.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Christa, given this is your first marathon we had no choice but to move to higher volume. Regardless of what you choose to do next, this season will serve you well in the long term.

  • Matt Johnson

    Phenomenal post Greg. I agree wholeheartedly with everything presented here. You answered all the questions someone might be thinking!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Matt, tried to make it as comprehensive as I could, fortunate to have experienced the highs and lows of it this current season.

  • Geri Lynn Sanchez

    A great coach does more than teach the athlete to run…Having an understanding of why our key workouts (and all workouts) are important, makes it that much easier to follow through and improve…especially on days when the mind and body do not want to cooperate. This was an interesting and enlightening article, Greg! Thank you!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks Geri Lynn, I truly believe that anyone can write a training plan, it’s understanding the runner’s context and how to devise a plan that just pushes the runner enough, and offering the right type and level of support, is what distinguishes a good coach from a downloadable plan.

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  • ultrastevep

    Great article on an important part of training, Greg. Coming from the late 70’s, I was always a high mileage runner (>100 mpw), but now in my early 60’s I find it hard to maintain without having constantly tired legs. As a devoted lifetime runner, I’m finding different ways of training to keep the body happy, yet still maintain enough fitness to be competitive.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Hi Steve, thanks for the compliment. I have read some thinking lately that once you establish a good aerobic base over many years, there is less value on doing high volume (and I hinted at that in the post) as the base is maintained on far less, and you can’t really build more (or, there’s little value in doing so). Definitely something I’ll be thinking about the next few years. You do hear a lot of the competitive Masters runners like Pete Magill talk more about a focus on quality at that point, with enough base work (or cross training, perhaps) to stay sane and keep the weight off, I imagine.